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Vasiliy Lomachenko’s path to greatness

Vasiliy Lomachenko
John Dennen considers Vasiliy Lomachenko’s place in history

THE FINEST AMATEUR YET?
Vasiliy Lomachenko is often said to be the greatest amateur boxer of all time. You can see why. Hardly anyone has ever achieved what the Ukrainian has done. A two-weight Olympic gold medallist, winner of the Val Barker trophy in 2008 for the best boxer at the Games (and in 2012 he certainly had a shout for deserving a second Val Barker prize, though that would have been a feat without precedent). He was also a two-time World championships gold medallist and a European champion.

He is certainly the finest of the modern era, probably the best since Cuban legend Teofilo Stevenson and in the history of the amateur sport he is up there. He can be considered among the best, although Lazlo Papp, Hungary’s star of the 1950s, can probably be seen as the very best.

There was an aura about him in the amateur sport. People were in awe of him, wondering where he’d be in the draw, staying in the venue to watch him compete when he boxed. He wasn’t feared as a destructive puncher or a cruel finisher, but he was intimidating because in the four-year cycle between the 2008 and 2012 Games it seemed like he could not be beaten. Brazil’s Robson Conceicao came close in Azerbaijan. He adopted bizarre tactics, flopping on to the canvas at every opportunity, which worked, sort of, in the computer points scoring system of the time since even Lomachenko couldn’t hit him when he was on the ground (and that scoring system did not reward knockdowns). Conceicao even had his hand raised in the ring, for what would have been an unbelievable upset win, only for that to be overturned on an appeal. The appeal ruled that the referee should have deducted points from Conceicao for warnings, which to be fair he should have, and so the result was reversed. Lomachenko didn’t come close to losing again in the unpaid code and won the Olympics the following year, seemingly at a canter.

Vasiliy Lomachenko
Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Interestingly Lomachenko wasn’t that active as an elite international. He didn’t enter many of the minor competitions on the European circuit but did emerge for the major championships, and duly took them by storm. That only added to his aura but was clearly part of his strategy. He was almost always sharp and in form when he did box. That suggests that this long period of time he’s had out of competition ahead of this bout with Teofimo Lopez should not be a problem for Lomachenko.

WHAT ELSE CAN HE ACHIEVE?
Lomachenko will go down as a great fighter because of the combination of his amateur accolades and his rapid rate of achievement as a professional boxer. He didn’t go pro immediately after London 2012. He spent a season in the World Series of Boxing, a quasi pro league that took five-strong teams of international amateur boxers and held matches of five five-round bouts. The perfect warm up before he agreed terms to go pro with Top Rank. He was brilliant in the WSB format, winning the team trophy with Ukraine and taking a second win over his bitter rival Albert Selimov.

He hasn’t had a similar visceral rivalry as a professional. He did lose his second professional bout and first world title fight to Orlando Salido, who employed the wiles of a veteran and had come in over the weight limit to take a contentious split decision. Lomachenko learned his lesson. He won his next fight and the WBO featherweight title against Gary Russell. The Ukrainian has looked imperious since. Swiftly he became a three-weight professional world titlist and has unified three belts at lightweight. It’s achieving so much so few fights that marks Lomachenko out for greatness. He’s beaten good boxers too, Jorge Linares the standout name so far but he’s also scalped Olympic gold medallists Guillermo Rigondeaux and Luke Campbell. But a fighter like Teofimo Lopez is what he needs. He might be young and inexperienced, but he is a power-puncher and seen to be a threat.

Primarily though, to stamp his place in the record books, Lomachenko needs to become an undisputed champion and unify all four of the major world titles. That is hard to do, given the politics of the sport. But if anyone can, surely Lomachenko can.

There is more for him to accomplish. Given his tremendous list of accolades you’d think he’d be in the twilight of his career. But he’s 32 years old, not young for a boxer but hardly nearing retirement. He himself has ruled out moving up to a fourth weight category. Lightweight is at the upper end of his physical limit. Lomachenko says he can box at 135 or 130lbs, so he could move back down in weight too. That will open up further options for him. His promoter Bob Arum has even floated the possibility of “The Monster” Naoya Inoue moving up to fight him. He should go down as a modern great but Lomachenko is a superstar in need of super-fights.

WHAT MAKES HIM SPECIAL?
Guided by his father, Anatoly, as he has been throughout his life, Lomachenko’s training is cutting edge. His conditioning is superb, he also works on co ordination and reaction drills as well as mental exercises. That is a scientific approach but once he’s through the ropes he has an almost instinctive feel for the sport. He is however calculating.

Some great fighters have a special attribute for which they become known. It might be a power-punch, or a forensic jab. Others are known for their style, a backfoot counter-puncher etc. But Lomachenko does not easily fit into any classification. Because he can do it all. He can backpedal and move clear, he can apply aggressive pressure. Unlike at the start of his professional career, he now knows how to control and dictate pace and tempo over the course of a 12-round title fight. Against Luke Campbell he showed just that, raising the intensity exactly when he needed to to take the round and ultimately the fight away from the Briton. He is strong in all areas. Perhaps his most outstanding attribute is his ability to read his opponents. Lomachenko doesn’t necessarily start quickly, because he studies what’s in front of him. He deploys feints to prompt a reaction from his opponent and he uses his understanding of those tells to great effect once he gets to work. And any questions about his punch power were settled with a frightening knockout against Anthony Crolla last year.

Vasiliy Lomachenko lightweight
Mikey Williams/Top Rank

“Every slight mistake, I got punished. He makes you feel pretty useless,” Crolla told Boxing News. “I thought I knew how good his feet were but the way he judged distance, it was very surreal being in there. He’d vary the punch power up. You couldn’t really get used to it. He hits harder than I expected… The shot that knocks you out is the shot you don’t see coming. He’d touch you and then just whip in a hard shot. He’d vary it. He’s very well balanced. I think throughout my career my defence served me well, even at a decent level it served me well. But he opened me up very quick. He reads a fight so well. When I watch it back, and even when I was on the floor, I realised how he’d set me up, teasing, dipping, he looked for that gap and whack. The next thing I know I’m face first and thinking, ‘What am I doing down here?’

“My six-year-old asks me, ‘Why didn’t you get up in time, dad? Why didn’t you get up in time?’ Absolutely brutal!”

WHAT THEY SAY
Bob Arum, Lomchenko’s promoter, argues, “He will go down in history as the greatest amateur fighter in the world with a meteoric professional record. We’ve matched him with the best fighters that we can find. He’s always come through and obviously this fight will continue his legacy should he be successful.

“I watched last week Loma train for the fight. Believe me, he is 150 per cent ready. We talked with Teofimo and he is confident and looks in great shape. This should be a tremendous battle and all I can say is this has all the ingredients of a major, major event.”

Lomachenko says, “When I came into professional boxing I always wanted to fight only with top fighters, with world champions. Now I have a top fighter in front of me and I want only to improve who I am and improve my legacy.

“[What happens next] depends what happens after this fight, it depends what we can organise. 130lbs and 135lbs, for me it doesn’t matter. I’ll choose the best choice for me.

“I know he [Lopez] is a top fighter. He is a good fighter. It will be not easy for me but we’ll see… I don’t think about age. Because I’m just 32 years old. Who made the rules about age and boxing? It depends on the personal lifestyle, somebody gets old at 27 and 30, somebody at 45. I feel great. I feel young.”

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